China's city dwellers overtake rural population

China said Tuesday the number of people living in cities exceeded the rural population for the first time, a historic shift that experts said would put a strain on society and the environment.

The change marks a turning point for China, which for centuries was a mainly agrarian nation but has witnessed a huge population shift to cities over the past three decades as people seek to benefit from rapid economic growth.

Urban dwellers now represent 51.27 per cent of China's entire population of nearly 1.35 billion - or 690.8 million people - the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said.

It added that China had an extra 21 million people living in cities by the end of 2011 compared to a year earlier - more than the entire population of Sri Lanka - while the number of rural dwellers dropped.

"Urbanisation is an irreversible process and in the next 20 years, China's urban population will reach 75 per cent of the total population," said Li Jianmin, head of the Institute of Population and Development Research at Nankai University.

"This will have a huge impact on China's environment, and on social and economic development."

A significant portion of those moving to cities are migrant workers - rural residents seeking work in urban areas - who have helped fuel growth in the world's second-largest economy.

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